Inequality is embedded into our laws, policies and institutions. If meaningful progress is going to be made, we must be honest about the realities of structural racism in the UK.
October is Black History Month 2021 - a chance to celebrate and reflect on the many achievements of the Black British community in the UK.
First celebrated in October 1987 in the UK, on the 150th anniversary of Caribbean emancipation, the aim was to challenge racism and educate communities about the British history that was not taught in schools. The theme this year is ‘Proud to Be’. As a Black woman, I choose to celebrate my African-Caribbean history all year.
This year’s Black History Month comes 40 years on from the New Cross fire, a tragic event that killed 13 young Black people between the ages 14 and 22. Also in 1981 was resistance across the country, including Brixton, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester. The violence and anger of 1981 was a response to a devastating reality for many Black people in the UK - mass unemployment, poor housing conditions, police brutality and racism.
This was a pivotal moment in the history of race relations in the UK. It was the year the Scarman Report was published and the end of indiscriminate sus laws, which gave the police power to arrest anyone they viewed as suspicious. 40 years on, we must consider the question: how far have we come in our fight for racial justice?
Evidence shows that we still have a long way to go. Black women are four times more likely than white women to die during pregnancy or childbirth, unemployment rates are higher for Black people and exclusion rates are five times higher for Black Caribbean pupils in parts of England. It is clear that inequality is embedded into our laws, policies and institutions. If meaningful progress is going to be made, we must be honest about the realities of structural racism in the UK.
Nowhere is this inequality starker than in the experiences of Black, Asian and ethnic minorities during the pandemic. Shockingly, during the first wave, Black people were four times more likely to die of Covid than white people. Countless experts and inquiries including the ONS, Professor Marmott and The Runnymede Trust have concluded that higher death rates among ethnic minorities are linked to pre-existing socio-economic inequalities like insecure work, lack of accessible healthcare, low pay and overcrowded housing.
“As a Black woman, I choose to celebrate my African-Caribbean history all year”
The Runnymede Trust’s 2020 report, State of the Nation, finds that, not only were inequalities in Britain already significant and systemic before the pandemic, but it’s consequences are likely to increase social, economic and health inequalities for Black, Asian and ethnic minority people.
We saw a very different picture painted in the deeply flawed and offensive Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities Race (CRED) report, an offensive and divisive polemic which glorifies slavery, downplays the role of institutional racism and blames Black, Asian and ethnic minorities for their own disadvantage.
The government's apathy on addressing structural inequalities is startling and their failure to put forward a clear, long-term strategy on racial equality is an insult to the lived experience of millions, who continue to be blighted by the racism ingrained in our society.
The next Labour government will introduce a Race Equality Act that takes lessons from the pandemic to fundamentally change the systems and institutions in which these structural racial inequalities exist. This act will include diversifying the country’s selective national curriculum, introducing mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting, and implementing a national strategy to tackle health inequalities.
As we look towards recovery from the pandemic, equality must be embedded in all policies and equality impact assessments applied to test and strengthen the approach.
Whether we know it or not, we are all affected by those who have gone before us. I, myself, am proud to stand on the shoulders of so many greats. Like abolitionist Mary Prince, the first Black woman to have a memoir of her experiences of slavery published in Britain. The legendary John Archer who, when elected in my constituency Battersea in 1913, became London’s first Black Mayor, and who rightly cited his election as a pivotal moment. Activists Paul Stephenson, Roy Hackett, Guy Bailey (my former youth worker) and others who led the Bristol bus boycott in the 1960’s, which lasted four months until the company backed down and overturned the colour bar. The boycott paved the way for the Labour government passing the Race Relations Acts of 1965, 1968 and 1976.
Despite the progress we have made since 1981, it is clear we have a long way to go. That’s why we must remember and celebrate the stories of Black Britons – to draw on their strength and be inspired to continue the collective fight for racial justice.